For more than 50 years, St. Louis has been home to a 630-foot-tall, shiny, stainless steel beacon. It has welcomed visitors from near and far. It has welcomed home St. Louis-area residents as they cross the Mississippi River after a trip, and has been an awe-inspiring mile-marker for passersby crossing through to their next destination.
St. Louisans may remember watching the last piece of the Arch being dropped into place in 1965. Perhaps they knew someone who helped to build it, had their first date there or took wedding photos in its shadow. At some point, it’s likely they have shown off the towering structure to guests.
It’s hard to imagine the city of St. Louis without the Gateway Arch standing tall against the skyline, its reflection glinting onto the Mississippi River. And the city plans to keep it that way.
Recently, St. Louis’ prized possession received a $380-million makeover. It was the result of a decade-long period of planning and construction designed to reinvent and revitalize the entire grounds of Gateway Arch National Park [formerly known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial].On July 3, just before the kickoff to Fair St. Louis, the project will culminate with a grand opening ribbon-cutting celebration of the Museum at the Gateway Arch, the final piece of the project.
The sleek, cutting-edge and high-tech museum far exceeds its predecessor [a far cry from taxidermy animals and animatronics].
Recently, Mid Rivers Newsmagazine got a sneak peak of the brand new grounds and museum. Through the sounds of last-minute hammering, drilling and sound testing, it already was clear that the entire project was done to the nth degree.
In order to understand the enormity of thought and effort behind the project, it’s important to note its long timeline. The seed was originally planted in 2007, when then-St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay sought to address unique challenges facing the Arch grounds, such as accessibility.
“The Arch was almost like an island, disconnected from the rest of the city,” Samantha Fisher, director of communications for the Gateway Arch Park Foundation, said.
Slay was looking for a way to attract more foot-traffic to the park and make it more cohesive with the rest of downtown St. Louis.
Thus, in 2009, The City + The Arch + The River 2015: Framing a Modern Masterpiece International Design Competition began. The race was on to find the best possible proposal for how to better such an important piece of St. Louis.
In 2010, it was announced that the firm of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates [MVVA] won the design competition. Over the next several years, MVVA’s design was refined and perfected, and funding for the project, from entities such as U.S. Department of Transportation, MoDOT, private donors and taxpayer-funded Prop P, fell into place.
The design sought to incorporate more of the original ideas of Eero Saarinen, the Finnish-American architect and industrial designer who, in 1947, designed the Arch monument and its surrounding grounds. Saarinen didn’t live to see the Arch completed and some of his original ideas were left out. Included in those were: a walkable space over the highway connecting the Arch to downtown, heavily treed park grounds, an amphitheater, and incorporation of the historic 1800s Old Rock House building [which was ultimately torn down to make way for construction of the Arch].
All of those components of Saarinen’s vision were included into the new project in some way, as well as an overhaul to the riverfront that includes a trail, the museum and visitors center, two park areas, two ponds, road improvements, an overhaul of Kiener Plaza and updates to the Old Courthouse.From 2013 until now, construction on the aforementioned projects began and gradually was completed – with the Museum at the Gateway Arch, designed by Haley Sharpe Design Limited, becoming the final piece of the puzzle.
Instead of accessing the underground museum through the legs of the arch, as it used to be, the museum was dug out and expanded west, where it boasts a brand new, centrally located entrance facing downtown. The legs of the Arch have become the museum’s exits. The new entrance is a futuristic-looking, glass semi-circle that leads visitors to an underground expanse that adds 46,000 square feet of space to its existing 103,540 square feet.[Reporter’s tip: When you walk into the cool, naturally-lit entrance lobby, look behind you for a moment and you’ll see a postcard view of the downtown from which you just came.] A visitors center, staffed by representatives from the National Park Service and Explore St. Louis, stands ready to provide information pertaining to the museum as well as what to do around town.
Entry into the museum is free, but visitors will need to go through security.
On the mezzanine level, a massive, rectangular, terrazzo map is impressively tiled into the museum’s floor, showcasing the United States and its historic trails winding westward from St. Louis.“[The map depicts] how St. Louis was integral to the westward expansion of the United States,” Fisher said.
As guests keep walking, they come to a series of life-size video boards rising out of the floor and featuring vast expanses of scenery and wildlife. The boards are designed to make guests feel like they are settlers trekking west.The main area, which is unrecognizable from the old museum, feature six exhibits that tell roughly 100 more years of history than its predecessor. The exhibits date from the mid-1600s to present and each tells a unique story of the history of St. Louis and westward expansion, incorporating points of view from all groups of people including minorities, women and children.
The exhibits are accessible to people of all abilities, including wheelchair-bound visitors, and have aspects that appeal to sight, sound and touch.
“It’s a ‘yes’ space. So, if it’s within reach, it’s allowed to be touched,” Fisher explained, of the sensory-friendly museum.
The museum even has light and sound settings that can be adjusted when the space is crowded, when it’s quiet, or when it has groups of visitors who are sensitive to light, color or sound.The six galleries are:
Colonial St. Louis – before the Louisiana Purchase transferred the territory to the U.S., St. Louis was a trading village rooted in French culture and governed by the Spanish.
Jefferson’s Vision – President Thomas Jefferson furthered the westward expansion of the U.S. by sending expeditions to claim territory and locate natural resources.
The Riverfront Era – St. Louis became one of America’s busiest ports and trade centers in the mid-1800s. This exhibit features a facade of The Old Rock House made with the building’s actual stones and hardware, which were preserved when the building was torn down. Saarinen originally envisioned The Old Rock House as the entrance to the Arch, so this could be considered an ode to him. This exhibit also features a miniature, exact replica of what the riverfront looked like in the mid-1800s before the great fire burned most of it down.Manifest Destiny – How westward migration affected Native Americans, Mexicans and pioneers themselves.
New Frontiers – The industrialization of America caused Native Americans to lose all or part of their homelands.
Building the Gateway Arch – How the great American monument that commemorates westward expansion was designed and built. This exhibit features other contending designs that were ultimately beat out by Saarinen’s – an interesting perspective to view what St. Louis would have looked like without its beloved Arch.
One could easily spend an entire day poring over the detailed exhibits.
“There is so much content here and so many different ways to take in the information,” Fisher noted.
Museum Director Bill Haley of Haley Sharpe Design Limited said the layout of the museum is designed so that visitors can spend as much or as little time there as they like and still gain something from the experience.
“Each of the six exhibits has a central feature that will resonate even if you’re just quickly walking through,” Haley said, in an interview conducted by the Gateway Arch Park Foundation. “The supporting exhibits allow visitors to take a deeper dive if they’d like.”
As guests exit the museum’s main area, they enter the tram lobby. There, they’ll find trams to the top of the Arch, a cafe and a gift shop.
A new feature located in the tram lobby is the Keystone Exhibit, which offers a live stream of the view from the top of the Arch in real time, inside a space that looks identical to the observation deck – another inclusive feature for people who are unable to travel to the top or people who simply prefer to opt out.It’s safe to say the redesigned Gateway Arch National Park has hit the nail on the head – a world-class makeover fit for a world-class monument.
See it for yourself at one of the upcoming celebratory events.
Tuesday, July 3
10 a.m. – Opening ceremony and ribbon curring takes place outside the West Entrance [main entrance] of the Museum and Visitors Center at the Gateway Arch. Ozzie Smith serves as the master of ceremonies. The #YourArch community mosaic also will be revealed. Immediately following the ceremony, the Normandy High marching band leads the public from the West Entrance to the North Gateway amphitheater.
11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. – The North Gateway holds a celebration. Activities include live music by Boogie Chyld, food trucks, drink vendors, photo booth, lawn games, children’s activities and appearances from Fredbird and Louie, the St. Louis Blues mascot. The first 1,000 guests will receive complimentary cookies.
Noon – The Museum at the Gateway Arch opens to the public. The first 10,000 visitors receive a special edition coin.
For downtown parking information, visit getaroundstl.com/attractions/parking/.
To purchase tickets for the tram in advance or view hours of operation for the Gateway Arch, visit gatewayarch.com/things-to-know/.
Following the grand opening is Fair St. Louis from July 4-7 on the Arch grounds. Metro Cooling Buses will be available on July 4 at 4th and Chestnut streets for visitors to take a break from the heat. For complete details, visit fairsaintlouis.org.